Melanoma is a cancer of pigment producing-cells called melanocytes. Most melanomas originate from the skin, though they can also arise from other parts of the body containing melanocytes, including the eyes, brain or spinal cord, or mucous membranes.
The ability to spread widely to other parts of the body is a unique characteristic of melanoma that the other more common skin cancers, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, rarely possess. This characteristic makes melanoma the deadliest of all skin cancers.
Melanoma of the skin is one of the most common cancers in the United States – among the top 10 causes of new cancer cases.
The survival rate for melanoma depends a lot on the stage of the cancer. While the overall five-year survival rate for people diagnosed with melanoma is high at 92 percent, the survival rate decreases dramatically once melanoma spreads to other parts of the body.
Very early stage (localized, Stage 0 or I) melanoma is greater than 90 percent curable with surgery, while patients with melanoma that has progressed to Stage 4 have a median life expectancy of less than one year. But there have been many new treatments approved for advanced melanoma in recent years, which have had great benefit to many patients with advanced melanoma.
Right now, prevention and early detection are the best strategy for improving outcomes in melanoma.
In 2011, the FDA approved new melanoma treatments for the first time in more than a decade. Since then, the FDA has approved a total of eleven treatments for melanoma, underscoring the remarkable progress that has been made in a very short time period.
Key among these treatments are molecularly targeted drugs for patients whose melanoma has specific mutations. Immunotherapy – an approach that energizes a patient’s immune system to combat melanoma – has emerged as powerful new tools in the melanoma treatment arsenal.